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At least 1.76 billion plastic items used each year; non-profit to launch 'two is enough' campaign

SINGAPORE — People in Singapore use at least 1.76 billion supermarket plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic disposables in a year, and nearly half of 1,003 people surveyed use three or more plastic bags each time they visit the supermarket.

SINGAPORE — People in Singapore use at least 1.76 billion supermarket plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic disposables in a year, and nearly half of 1,003 people surveyed use three or more plastic bags each time they visit the supermarket.

Armed with these and other findings from the latest survey it commissioned with Deloitte & Touche Enterprise Risk Services, the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) plans to urge consumers to stop at two.

The non-profit organisation will launch a "two is enough" campaign in August to encourage shoppers to use no more than two bags each time they go to the supermarket, and to use one fewer plastic item per day.

"The key is to choose reusable items – bring your own bag when shopping, avoid items packed in (takeaway) containers, use your own cutlery when taking food away, and take a refillable water bottle with you instead of buying bottled water," said SEC executive director Jen Teo at a press conference on Tuesday (July 31).

The survey, which will be incorporated into a more extensive research report into consumer use of plastic and the waste ecosystem in Singapore, polled 1,003 individuals here online from Dec last year to May this year.

It found that 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets were consumed each year – a figure that does not include plastic bags taken from other shops and retail outlets.

Consumers in Singapore also use a whopping 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles each year – or one to three per person per week. They use 473 million polypropylene disposable items including takeaway containers each year – or one to three items per person per week.

Asked if the latest campaign to get consumers to use less plastic and disposables would make enough of an impact, other environmentalists said it was not dissimilar to other ground-up advocacy efforts.

They questioned if the impact would be long-lasting and some urged the Government to impose a levy on single-use plastic items.

Ms Aarti Giri, founder of advocacy group Plastic-Lite Singapore, estimated that the 820 million supermarket plastic bags used a year could make up only 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the total, as plastic bags are also given out at hawker centres, wet markets and shopping malls, she said.

"Raising awareness is uphill battle. It is easy to slide down as well…What about after (the campaign)? (The efforts have) to go hand in hand, top-down with bottom-up," she said.

A signal from the authorities, such as in the form of a tax on single-use plastic, would enable the message to ring louder, she added.

Consumers "are not going to be happy", but the authorities can explain why such a tax is needed, and "people will change their lifestyle accordingly", Ms Giri said. "To get people to be more proactive – to reduce, reuse – we need to act on both sides."

Businesses could also impose a charge for takeaway items or install more watercoolers in malls or parks to reduce the public's dependence on bottled water, she noted.

Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency Lee Bee Wah said the SEC's campaign will be a good start.

"It gives people a concrete and achievable goal," she said. But despite past efforts, "we still use more plastic than many countries including Malaysia, Australia and China", she said, pointing to the need to do more about the issue of plastic waste.

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the world's oceans each year, causing harm to the environment and marine animals and potentially ending up in the food chain.

On why the SEC is not presently calling for a plastic levy, SEC chairman Isabella Loh told reporters: "We have to bring change about only with co-operation. We cannot be in people's face and say 'thou shalt not have' or 'you have to reduce using 25 cents or 35 cents'. It is draconian for now."

The SEC is studying Taiwan's approach to a plastic levy, and Ms Loh said: "It went very well the first two years, and then it went back up again… because people got used to paying (the levy). Even worse, the plastic bags got thicker. So now they have to go and legislate for thinner plastic bags."

NTUC FairPrice's involvement in SEC's campaign will be part of its Plastic Bag Management Programme that replaces its existing Green Rewards scheme, which gave out a total of S$4 million in rebates between 2007 and 2017 to shoppers who brought their own bags.

Mr Jonas Kor, its director of corporate communications, said the rewards programme was phased out as its results had "plateaued". When the scheme started in 2007, 1.3 million plastic bags were saved. Savings last year grew to 11.5 million bags, up from 10.9 million bags saved in 2016.

"Charging (for) plastic bags can only come about with legislation," Mr Kor added.

The SEC study also found that women were almost twice as likely as men to take along a reusable bag to shop. Only 10 per cent of male respondents indicated that they used their own bags, compared with 18 per cent of the female respondents.

Ms Loh said the SEC is intending to work with designers to come up with a reusable bag design that men will more likely adopt.

Nearly one in four respondents who were above the age of 60 took six or more plastic bags on trips to the supermarket – a higher proportion than younger respondents.

Nearly one in three consumers said they threw away used PET bottles, with the remainder reusing or recycling the bottles.

As for polypropylene disposable items, about half the respondents said they reused the items and one in five said they recycle the items. One in four respondents said they threw the items away.

CLARIFICATION: In the previous version of the story, we reported that the “two is enough” campaign would start at NTUC FairPrice outlets. The supermarket chain has clarified that discussions with the Singapore Environment Council on various initiatives are ongoing, and details have not been finalised.

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